how to get a driver's license in Japan - part 2

Success! As I mentioned in my last post, I went to the driver licensing center for my driver's test to get a Japanese license - and I passed! Thanks to all for the good lucks, well wishes and congrats! Also, for any Americans curious about WHY they must take the test, the U.S. Embassy does a good job breaking it down: see here. Apparently, the first time pass rate for Americans is slightly above 35%, unless you've gone through driving school here in Japan. So, as promised, a rundown of my day:


My husband and I woke up bright and early for the hour-long journey via train and bus to the Central licensing center in Shizuoka - we had to be there by 9:30 am. We brought all the necessary paperwork from the police station, which you can read in part 1 of this short series.
Side note: I've read various blog posts/articles that recommend dressing nicely for the test. I dressed nice (no jeans) but I didn't wear a suit or anything like that. Most of the people there testing were wearing jeans and sweats, so at least in this case, it didn't seem to matter. 
We were directed to the area that specifically serves foreigners (外国免許切替, がいこくめんきょきりかえ, gaikokumenkyokirikae, "Foreign to Japanese License Exchange"). We were the only Americans there that day, but a small group of Filipinos had come to take retests that morning.

The window opened around 9:30, and we gave the man (I'll call him Suzuki-san - he helped us the entire day) my information and explained the name-change business for the third time and waited briefly while he processed some paperwork. While waiting, we watched the other foreigners retake their driving tests, noting the common mistakes.

Once Suzuki-san had processed everything and determined all was in proper order, he had a brief interview with us about my driving history and experience. How often did I drive in the States? Where did I get my license? When did I start driving? What kind of vehicles have I driven? And so on. My husband also explained the concept of a driving permit and the rules that states in the U.S. vary on.

Eye Exam

After the interview, Suzuki-san took me to do a short eye exam. I'm sure this is standard in every prefecture - I had to press my face up to a viewfinder and say "up, down, right or left" according to where the opening was in each highlighted circle. Although, you have to do this part in Japanese: up is 上 (ue), down is 下 (shita), right is 右 (migi) and left is 左 (hidari). After this some colored lights lit up and I had to name the color: 赤 (aka, red), 青 (ao, blue/green) and 黄色い (kiiroi, yellow). I passed the eye exam with flying colors and was taken into a small classroom to take the written exam.

Written Exam

My husband translated the instructions (although they weren't that difficult to understand... true/false quiz) and then left the room. Suzuki-san stayed in the classroom for my ten minute written exam. Most people say this quiz is incredibly easy, and I would mostly agree, although if you don't know the Japanese rules for driving, then some questions might be a little difficult to understand. Some of my questions included (in English, with giant pictures - and I'm going to paraphrase them as I don't remember the exact wording):

1. You should always slow down and use caution around pedestrians and pedestrian areas.

2. When driving manual, to avoid stalling on train tracks, you should stay in the lowest gear and NOT shift until after you have successfully crossed.

3. You can use the bus lane designated exclusively for buses if there are no buses around.

4. All passengers must wear seat belts when driving on national expressways.

5. Except for national expressways, one must not exceed a speed of 60 km on all roads unless otherwise designated.

6. You can turn right any time, even if the light is red.

7. You can park in the above parking area anytime (the picture showed a car parked directly in front of a fire station, blocking the exit/entrance).

8. When passing another vehicle, you may pass on the left if there are no other vehicles around.

Sorry, can't remember the last two. Suzuki-san checked my answers and said I got them all correct. My husband came back in the room and he translated the results (even though I understood the first time). Then we waited for about 15 minutes while Suzuki-san ran out to take care of something, and then came back in to go over the driving test and course. We asked questions about the course as well, and he explained the way the point system works. The total is 100 points, and you must get at least 70 points to pass. They may dock points in 5, 10 or 15 depending on the mistake.

He also explained that when going through the S-curve and crank turn (incredibly tight and somewhat difficult to navigate) that you can stop and back up if you need to. You can do this once and have NO points docked. If you do it two or three times they will dock points. If you do it four or more - you fail.

Also, and this is something I was surprised to learn, if, when going through the S-curve or crank turn, your tire drops (it's slightly elevated similar to a sidewalk) off the curb, IF you stop immediately, and back up, they will NOT fail you (but will dock some points). This is a very common error (so I've read and heard), so if your tire drops - don't give up right then and there!

He also explained that I would have one lap around the outer loop to practice before the actual exam begins (phew!).

I would strongly encourage anyone taking the practical test to take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions about the course and how you will be judged. Of course, they cannot tell you what to do, but they CAN tell you what NOT to do. Very helpful. I understood probably two-thirds of this conversation, and my husband asked the questions or translated my English questions for me, so it helps to have someone with you to help out if your Japanese isn't quite there yet.


After the written test we had a break and went to get lunch at the cafeteria. I don't know if every licensing center has a cafeteria, but considering how many people have to wait all day, maybe many of them do (feel free to confirm in the comments). The cafeteria was actually quite nice, and there were no other places around the area to get food (not even a convenience store). This probably varies by location.

When we finished lunch, we went to walk the course. The designated walking time was 12-12:50. So we walked through the entire thing, as I pretended I was driving and did everything exactly how I would do it in the car, and we analyzed the best strategy for certain points. The visualization definitely helped.

Practical Driving Test

Then, we waited until about just before 2 pm when the examiner came in to the waiting area. Another woman was there, sick with a fever, poor thing, to take the test with me. The examiner explained the course (again), and then proceeded to reiterate to me how much he does NOT like American driving. He said, essentially, if I drive by American rules I will fail. (Part of me wondered if the man did not like Americans... or just their driving...). Honestly, I became incredibly nervous at this point.

He then announced I would go first, while the other woman sat in the back. So we started out, as I tried to remember all the things to do first - check behind the car, check under the car, get in, adjust seat, adjust wheel, seat belt. The examiner told me to start the car, so I did, while stepping on the brake. Then I put the car in "drive." Except that, the shift was one of those weird zig-zag ones that I really just don't understand (I've had a lot of driving experience, driving various vehicle types, but they are usually straight). I ended up accidentally putting the car in "Low" and the examiner quickly corrected me. Oops. More nerves. I laughed and said that was new to me. He gave a a sort of grunt-laugh and said I could start my practice lap. Signal, check blind spot, mirrors, and go.

After my practice lap, I readjusted my rear view mirror since I forgot it in the practice lap. (Remember to do this after adjusting your seat and putting on your seat belt!) and waited for his signal to put the car in actual drive this time, check again, and go.

During the test, the examiner would give verbal directions (turn right at this number, go straight and turn left here, etc.) and I always answered, "はい" (yes), even if I was only sort of paying attention since I had already memorized the course. I followed the rules the best I could, although a few times I forgot to check my rear view mirror. I did fine through the S-curve and crank turn, even though I was *THIS* close to hitting the poles through the crank turn. I didn't stop or back up though.

Somewhere in the middle of the test, I went through the intersection with the traffic light - but the signal wasn't working. The examiner ordered me to stop while he called and had them turn it on for my second time through it. (This reminds me, one of the folks we watched earlier ran the red light...).

After the test, I switched places with the woman and sat in the back while she went through her test. When she finished, we both got out of the car, and the examiner explained to us what we had done wrong. He did NOT like what he referred to as my "American" turns. In Japan, they cut corners when they turn, even though the Road Rules book has a whole section on turning radius and being careful. In the U.S., I suppose we do turn out a bit wider to make the turn, although we aren't supposed to swing that wide because it can confuse other drivers of our intentions. My husband said he didn't notice any wide turns, although both of us acknowledged at one point I hadn't really cut the corner, and I didn't swing wide either, but it was still just enough for the examiner to criticize it.

We went back up to the waiting area and our results. The examiner came up after 15 minutes or so and with Suzuki-san, explained a few other things he felt we should be aware of. He wasn't sure that I was actually checking when I looked both ways and checked my blind spots at intersections. He thought it was too exaggerated. I suppose it may have looked that way, but I couldn't see very well in the tiny car (the seat felt rather low). The main issue he had with this though, was that not every intersection requires stopping. You slow down and check before proceeding. The examiner thought all the looking essentially made my turns too long or something. Did I mention I used to live on a road off of a highway, so that just TRYING to turn onto the highway resulted in a 5-10 minute wait and checking vigorously? I think it's ingrained now. Although I did NOT turn on the windshield wipers instead of the blinkers, or turn underhand (although once my hand made a motion to and I quickly corrected it).

Anyway, after he told us all of his ridiculous issues with our driving, as I stood there thinking, "I thought I did all right though... did I really not pass?", he announced we both had passed. Relief.

Photo and a new license! 

The rest of the afternoon was uneventful, but I had my picture taken (no smile, according to the rules), paid for the license, and finally, listened to a short lecture on the license while also double-checking our personal details. I was told I did not need to put a beginner sticker on our car (whenever we get a car) because I've had more than two years of driving experience.

Around 3:30 pm, we finished. I have my license! Although, I need to remember to go back and renew it in 2 1/2 years (around the time of my birthday), or else I'll have to repeat this process again...
*Note: In the morning I had to pay 2400 yen to take the driving test, and 2100 yen in the afternoon for the license. 

For others out there who have also gone through this experience (perhaps in other prefectures, especially), feel free to share your experience in the comments! Similar? Different?

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